Read more about Celeste Hawkins at ycsfirstchoice.com.
1. Aside from the budget, what are your two top priorities for the Ypsilanti schools?
My top two priorities for Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS) are increasing student achievement and reducing the number of suspensions and expulsions.
As it relates to student achievement, it is important to ensure we have high expectations and a rigorous and engaging curriculum for all students. In Washtenaw County, school districts continue to grapple with how to narrow and eliminate the academic achievement gap between minority and non-minority students, specifically the disproportionate rates of academic achievement that are negatively impacting many African American students. It is imperative that we address factors that perpetuate the academic disparities that exist between minority and non-minority students in the YCS school district with diligence and intentionality. Disproportionate rates of achievement along the lines of race and class are problematic and I am committed to do what is necessary to change this trajectory. The data is disturbing and these issues require immediate attention in order to work towards eliminating the achievement gap to ensure all students receive an equitable and high quality education—I believe this is a social justice issue and a moral imperative. In YCS, we must be proactive in examining our student achievement data on a consistent basis, demonstrate accountability for the data, and review appropriate, evidenced based practices to promote positive outcomes in academic achievement.
As it relates to reducing the number of suspensions and expulsions in the district it is important to promote healthy and positive school cultures. This is being addressed in part by the implementation of Restorative Practices and Cultural Proficiency—two areas I am deeply passionate about and as a board member remain committed to its success in YCS. Both of these models are important for our district in order to improve school safety, help strengthen student-teacher-parent relationships, and create positive outcomes for students and the school community.
2. What ideas do you have for reducing students' out-of-school days (unexcused absences)?
The ultimate goal for our community should be to increase the number of students that are engaged and attending school regularly. When students are not in school they are not learning and ultimately falling behind academically. According to state and national data, there is a direct link to chronic school absenteeism and academic failure. This is not an individual issue to resolve; rather it is a community issue to solve. All too often, families bear the burden of this responsibility, but they cannot do it alone. There are often numerous barriers in families that prevent students from attending school regularly and we need to understand the root causes in order to effect change to reverse this trend which is negatively impacting our young people. We need to actively learn about and understand our students and their families and explore what ways we can support them. Reaching out to families through phone calls and home visits when a student is flagged after missing a certain number of days as a proactive approach can go a long way in promoting regular attendance. As a board, we have already discussed implementing some of these steps and I am committed to making this a priority to ensure we follow through. Multiple levels of engagement to promote and sustain regular attendance in school are critical for the success of our students.
3. Staff morale has been an issue in the school district. How do you think the board should monitor and respond to staff morale issues, if at all? What ideas do you have for reducing staff turnover in the coming year?
I believe the board should respond to staff morale using a very strategic process. As a board member, I have discussed the importance of implementing a process where we are collecting data on staff satisfaction during the school year and as part of an exit interview process in order to have accurate data on why staff are leaving and to address issues related to satisfaction while they are employed for the district. Having accurate and timely data helps us develop strategies that help us improve in order retain and attract excellent employees. I believe implementing this type of process will impact staff turnover and increase morale in the district.
4. Are you satisfied with the district’s openness and transparency to parents, employees, and community members/taxpayers? If yes, why? If no, what changes would you propose?
As a parent and board member, I believe the district can improve in the areas of openness and transparency, particularly communication. This is an area that is discussed frequently among the board and strategies are already being developed to address this. Our positive messaging needs to improve and I am committed to ensure this happens. Recently, as a board we decided to present on the district’s progress during the first year and we remain committed to doing this on a regular basis. This was accomplished through presentations at PTO and neighborhood community meetings over the past month. It was important to emphasize all of the great things our students and employees are doing, which are often overshadowed by the negative press and unfair characterizations of the community and the district.
As a district we need to do a better job of being proactive about our message by ensuring accurate facts, data, and positive stories are highlighted. District information needs to be readily accessible to parents, employees, and community members/taxpayers. I am proud to live in the Ypsilanti community and serve on the board. I have three children who have attended school in the district since kindergarten and I see first hand all of the great things our students and employees, are doing on a daily basis. It is my responsibility as a parent, board member and resident of the community to positively promote our district and remain open and honest about our successes and challenges. We owe it to our students, parents, employees, and community members to not just talk about change, but to actually work towards effecting change.
5. Hindsight is perfect, but: whether you are an incumbent, or not: Name one decision that the YCS school board made in the last six months that you think was a very good decision; and name one decision that the school board made in the last six months that you wish had been decided differently.
One decision that the YCS school board made in the last six months was to request a report on how the Restorative Practices and Cultural Proficiency models are being implemented with fidelity in our schools. These reports were recently presented during our regular board meetings. I am proud of the work in both of these areas because our district is seeing positive results in terms of behavior and building deep, meaningful relationships in our schools, which positively impact the experiences and outcomes of our students. In short, Restorative Practices take incidents that might otherwise result in disciplinary action and allows students to 1) become aware of the impact of their behavior; 2) understand the obligations to take responsibility for their actions; 3) take steps to make things right. This process has allowed student to learn how to interact and manage relationships with adults and peers and gain the necessary skills to understand how their actions impact others. YCS’s five-year commitment to Cultural Proficiency is unprecedented. The intentional commitment we have made as a district to learn about the lives of our students and honor their experiences and cultures to enhance collective learning among students and staff is an important step in the right direction to bring all students into the full fold of participation.
A recent decision to expel a student was necessary based on how the law is written, however I wish it was decided differently in terms of the impact it will have on the student, the family, and community. The rigidity of the state policy on school suspensions and expulsions is very challenging. Michigan has some of the harshest zero tolerance policies in the nation and therefore makes it very difficult when the school board needs to expel a student based on what you are bound to do by law. Exploring and exhausting alternatives in the policy while staying within the boundaries of the law is critical in keeping students in school and keeping our schools safe. The ultimate failure resulting from any expulsion is that numerous hours of lost school time means another child is excluded and is falling behind academically.
6. Former board members from Willow Run, Ypsilanti Schools, or Ypsilanti Community Schools: When were you a former board member? Were you appointed or elected? What did you learn from your experience on the WR, YS, or YCS board that you think would be helpful on the board now?
I was appointed to the YCS board. As a new board member, I learned a great deal about how policies and procedures impact practices in our schools. I learned how crucial the role of the board is in its service to the community. I learned that my board service allows me to be a voice for all students, particularly those students who may be marginalized. I have always remained firmly grounded in my purpose as a board member and my vision remains clear—my service on the board is to positively impact the lives of students academically, socially, and emotionally; to serve the community; set and adopt policies; and hire and evaluate the superintendent.
7. Assuming that you are elected, name one other board candidate that you would like to see serve beside you, and explain why.
I believe all of the candidates running for the seven seats bring a unique perspective to board service. I am seeking election because I am committed to the students and the community. To this end, I would like to serve with any candidate whose interests are grounded in what is best for students.
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